By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
I have been terrified to race for almost three years.
I’m not talking about bike racing. I am talking about any athletic competition. I finished my professional racing career in 2016 with an absolute sense of finality. When people asked me about a comeback, or even when I contemplated it myself, when uncomfortable and adrift adjusting to Real Life, that world didn’t even seem accessible anymore. It was behind a thick window; it wasn’t my life anymore. It was finished, and while that sometimes hurt, I couldn’t seem to conceive of it in any other way.
Either that, or I didn’t let myself.
In any case, I had retired with dreams of dabbling in trail running, perhaps taking on an adventure race, or continuing to chase athletic goals on a more modest level. Yet, here I was, three years in and I hadn’t pinned on a number.
Fear of the Physical
Part of the fear was physical. About six months into my attempted transition to running, I gave myself a stress fracture in my hip. Total non-shocker. I had spent a decade hovering at the low end of the energy availability spectrum in a non-impact sport, so the injury wasn’t exactly startling, and perhaps the fact it felt so deserved increased my fear of a recurrence.
This was rational, to a point. I gained weight, intentionally. I started doing some heavy lifting to strengthen my spine, and I began to run slowly and carefully, conservatively upping my volume.
It worked. It’s now been more than two years since my injury and things are holding together, but the idea of racing hard, even of training hard, perennially seems to be something I am not ready for, something scary to be approached next week, or else maybe next month.
I didn’t like to think about it, enough that I wasn’t even willing to explore the reasons behind my aversion.
Jumping Back In
Yet, two weeks ago, Buffalo, WY, the town I currently call home, hosted its annual 10K, the Klondike Rush. It was a manageable distance, half on dirt, half on pavement. The “Klondike” of the Rush referred to the course’s major obstacle, a steep hill on Klondike Road. I know that hill well: I live at the top of it and am frequently induced into sprinting up it at the end of my runs because I am dangerously close to being late for work.
Good race practice.
The Klondike Rush has just over 100 total participants in the 10k and 5k combined, making it four hundred times smaller than the annual 10K in Boulder, Colorado where I grew up.
I couldn’t come up with a sufficiently tangible excuse to avoid it, so I entered. I raced, and I had a spectacular time challenging myself physically for the first time in years, feeling the rush of competition and the validation of athletic accomplishment.
It was such a high. Then, a few hours later, I realized that very elation, more so than a strained hamstring or a cracked metatarsal, was exactly what I had been hiding from.
The Elation of Athletic Accomplishment
I’ve spent much of my life defining myself with athletic accomplishments. It was such an easy way of judging anything – my accomplishment, my productivity, my worth. Even if I wasn’t winning in Sports World, then training and racing, watts and results, and mathematical ways to improve made me feel complete, visible and valuable.
I don’t think it’s necessary to be a professional athlete to become entranced by the world of work and reward. Anyone who has followed a plan, accomplished a goal, or gotten a workout in on a tough morning knows the sense of pride that comes along with training.
That’s not necessarily a problem. However, what I had suddenly realized post-Rush was that the high of athletic accomplishment, which felt so good to me that I felt it rise up through my chest and shoulders, that I felt when I squeezed my eyes shut and gave myself a nod of joy in a job well done? It was so complete, so familiar, that I didn’t need anything else.
If I just had another important athletic goal, I found myself thinking, none of life’s other challenges would matter.
The Fear of Returning to Sports World
I’ve lived in that world. Life is beautiful there. It’s simple, and it’s amazing, and it feels like perfection is attainable — but in many ways it isn’t real, and it can’t last forever, and it can get awfully lonely. I have worked so hard to find a new career and get a job I am passionate about, that is utterly unconnected to sports. I have worked so hard to create a new life for myself.
My true fear, I told a new friend here in Buffalo, someone who is in recovery from more traditionally-recognized types of addiction, was that if I cracked open the door to Sports World, I would be rapidly sucked in, fully, and entirely. It would be so easy, and I would lose all of the painstaking, heartbreaking progress I have made on this new path. Only training, only sports would matter.
Balance has never been my strong suit.
I mulled this revelation over for exactly a week while nursing a sore calf, the mild physical fallout of my first-ever attempt at going fast in tennis shoes.
The next Saturday, my editor asked me to cover an early-morning, full-body cardio workout in the park for the paper.
The event was organized to support a local woman, Kristi McGee, who had lost her 14-year-old son, Justyn, to a cliff-diving accident just seven days earlier. Kristi is part of a group of Buffalo women coached by local instructor, Sarah Chapman, who support one another toward fitness and health goals.
McGee’s Fit for Life instructor, Kesa Andrews, had the idea for the Saturday morning event. She also created a hashtag, #sweatforkristi, for people to use to tag “sweaty selfies” and let McGee know they were thinking of her and sending her positive energy.
“The idea is to create a legacy, so Kristi can go back and search those hashtags when she needs a little light on her journey,” Andrews told me.
“Fitness and working out are an important part of Kristi’s life,” organizers wrote on the event’s Facebook page. “We can think of no better way for a community that is heartbroken to come together in honor of Justyn and to show our love and support for The McGee Family than to sweat it out at Crazy Woman Square.”
A group of nearly 50 people – in a town of just over 4,000 and with just a few days’ notice – showed up in the park that morning to sweat, pray, and challenge themselves together. I joined in, between snapping photos for the paper, attempting a series of moves that weren’t going to help me achieve a special goal other than moving, perhaps getting a bit stronger, and using the energy of sports to uplift someone who really needed it.
I have never met McGee, or her family, yet everyone I talked to told me about the support she constantly offered to others, and her positive attitude.
“It’s like a family,” said Chapman, who coaches the group. “You are part of something greater than yourself. We all want each other to win, and I think that’s so rare these days.”
It’s something I haven’t often experienced in my competitive career.
“We’re going to sweat for Kristi until she can sweat for herself again,” Chapman said.
The inspiration and glow I felt from attending the event, which had ostensibly been a work assignment, stayed with me all weekend.
I don’t yet know how to make sense of my Saturday-morning-workouts dichotomy. That soul-searching is a work in progress. Still, I think it is important that we all – those of us who devote ourselves to fitness, activity, physical challenge in any form – take a moment from time to time to consider what role that involvement plays in our lives. Perhaps there is more to be gained from it than we realize, and perhaps sometimes, it is time for that vision to change.
Perhaps, though I might still be afraid, I don’t have to feel alone.